BY ANNE WHITE
Among the myths-to-be-busted, this comes near the top of the list; and, unfortunately, it appears as not only a misunderstanding by non-CMers, but a problem of practice for CM educators. It is sometimes re-stated as “CM is not very hands-on,” with the implication that wiggly, “kinesthetic” children, especially boys, will be forced to sit still, listen to interminable chapters of hard books, and then parrot them back.
It is also a misunderstanding that might go as far back as Charlotte Mason’s original writings, where she says that headmasters of schools are not encouraged to take up “the methods” lightly, or with an eye only to the booklists, missing the larger principles and context. Longtime PNEU teacher Helen E. Wix wrote in 1957,
Narration? Oh yes, that’s what they do in P.N.E.U. schools, isn’t it? The children just read a bit and then narrate and the teacher does nothing much except listen. Lessons don’t have to be really prepared, because everything is there is the books the children read from.’
“Reading and narrating are all you do” is a myth, of course — in the ironic sense that Miss Wix meant it — because there is a great deal more to those seemingly simple (even slightly dull) activities than may appear on the surface. Of course narration is important. Vital, in fact, and deceptively powerful. Miss Wix went on to say,
I think it is true to say that narration as practised in P.N.E.U. schools is founded on this power of mind to recall knowledge gained from a single reading or seeing or doing and the fact that such recollection makes so deep an impression on the mind that it remains for a long time and is never entirely lost.
But since this post is about the fact that there is more to a CM education than “just” reading and narrating, I won’t go into more detail about that.
It is, again, a myth that may be stated with a sneer, because it implies that other methods are superior, or more in tune with today’s children. We assume that it won’t work to simply teach the Middle Ages from a book of history, or to read an entire book about Robin Hood, and to do copywork or keep a Book of Centuries, because that’s not what the public schools do when they study the Middle Ages. We should be spending a great deal of time on the innards of castles, and doing dragon art. We should be including time-travel novels and fictional diaries of imaginary young squires or princesses, because that’s what children will relate to. Perhaps we can even have them film stop-motion videos based on those books. Or, if we’re looking for more serious work, we can buy study guides filled with questions and vocabulary, maybe a crossword or two, and assignments for research papers. Sometimes “reading and narrating are all you do” sounds like a relief.
But it is, finally, a myth because it’s not true. If education is an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life; if we educate on “things” as well as books; if we encourage natural rhythms, seasons and rituals and make our family life a part of the whole learning process, then it’s clear that there must be more to CM learning than simply following a book list.
But how do we incorporate a wider variety of learning activities into a CM day? Young children, as Charlotte Mason wrote in Home Education, can make use of manipulative materials in arithmetic and reading, though those don’t have to be storebought. They model clay and fold cardboard.They time themselves walking or running a certain distance, they map their yards and examine their shadows (all activities mentioned in Home Education). As they grow older, students were/are encouraged to sketch things out themselves (such as a rough map of a place, or the general idea of a painting); and they begin to keep notebooks of both the written and graphic sorts. Illustrating scenes from literature and making entries in nature notebooks were required parts of the original P.U.S. terms. Programme listings for science noted that “Specimens should be used in all botanical work, and experiments must be made.” (Laurie Bestvater’s book The Living Page covers CM notebooking in much more detail than I can give here.)
Even within book lessons, there is room for more than just straight reading. It is possible to take a chapter of a book, such as Fairy-Land of Science, and break it up into three or four readings with narration, discussion, examination of specimens, and visual aids between the sections. It’s fine to let your kids all pile onto a chair to amplify a story about kings on their thrones. It’s acceptable (more than acceptable!) to listen to a tough question that arises from a reading, and discuss possible solutions.
Finally, what about Great Big Projects? Science fairs? Medieval feasts? Term-sized puppet shows? Backyard beekeeping? The grand productions are the things that make it into magazines and win medals, and we somehow may still feel as if our children are stuck holding their history books while their contemporaries are building backyard castles or whatever. Well, if you want to do any or all of these things, what’s stopping you? The P.U.S. students put on plays, organized Christmas parties for poor children, and contributed to exhibits of handicrafts. Girl Guide badges were incorporated into the programmes as well, for instance activities in first aid and homemaking. CM homeschoolers and small-schoolers today can be creative, without becoming either cluttered or guilt-ridden.
Like the headmasters who were cautioned against jumping in without understanding, we need to have the larger CM principles and philosophy written, Deuteronomy-style, on our (real or mental) walls and whiteboards. This doesn’t mean that school devolves to mere entertainment; but we can give our students what Carol Bly called “permission to be serious” in lessons, without making education dull.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.